Foiled Again

Just don't mention the pelican.

Journalist Nick Madrid isn't looking for adventure, doesn't set out to risk his life. All he wants is to write his piece about the controversial sponsorship deal designed to fit fencing to prime-time TV.
But even a man with Nick's journalistic standards can't dismiss the death of an Olympic fencer fatally stabbed in New York as an occupational hazard. Nor the sixty-year-old murder in the Lancashire mill town as ancient history. Especially when his own family's involvement in the Spanish Civil War comes under scrutiny.
Nick's high risk and hilarious investigation leads him from New York and Florida to the mean streets of - erm - Ramsbottom and the wild Lancashire moors above the ancient, abandoned village of Wycoller. Convinced he's stumbled into a John Buchan novel - replete with brutal blackshirts, suspect fell walkers, dodgy Brontes anoraks and flirtatious fencers - he's relieved when his friend Bridget 'the Bitch of the Broadsheets' Frost turns up to show him the way home.
But even she daren't mention the pelican.

Prologue

New York, The Present

PrologueNew York, The Present "This is a bank robbery," the big man said, his voice muffled by the stocking that covered his head and distorted his features.
"And this, sir, is a dry cleaners," the matronly woman behind the counter said with a frown. She made a vague gesture with her left hand. "I suggest you try next door."The big man didn't react immediately. Then he turned on his heel and walked into the doorframe, grunted and blundered out of the door. I righted the potted palm he had toppled and looked at the woman behind the counter.
"And how may I help you, sir?" she said.
"I just wondered," I said. "Was that an ankle sock he was wearing over his head?"
It was. Some minutes later I was using the cash machine in the bank - which was indeed next door to the dry cleaners - when I saw the big man at the counter ten yards to my right.
He was smartly dressed but two things about him had changed since our last encounter. He was wearing a pair of thick-lensed spectacles precariously perched on his nose over the ankle sock. And where before he had seemed to be unarmed, now he was pointing something menacingly at a startled bank teller.
I edged closer to see what he had in his hand. It took a moment to register that he was holding the bank-teller up with a carrot. A big carrot, mind.
Back in New York for twenty four hours and already the craziness was getting to me.
I scratched my head as I watched him. Did robbery with a vegetable constitute armed robbery - or did that depend on the vegetable? Potatoes - a mash and grab raid? A leek can be a lethal weapon - in the right hands, naturally. I'd heard somewhere that a bag of frozen peas makes a good sap. (Sorry, I've read a lot of period crime fiction.) Or is it good for bringing down swellings in sports injuries?
I was the only one who had noticed the would-be robber but then the bank was virtually empty. Two guards in pretend-police uniforms lounged at the entrance, watching through the smoked glass doors the snow drift down and the girls go by. There was only the one teller on duty.
A pretty woman in tinted glasses and a pale blue blouse, she looked blankly from the carrot to the bespectacled, squashed face. And her eyes widened as the sock slowly began to roll up over his chin. I felt sorry for the guy. Pop-socks just aren't big enough for this kind of thing. Back in Britain I understood the single-stocking mask was de rigeur on such occasions, though I'd heard of robbers wearing tights, the gussett being sufficient to cover the face so that the legs hung down like floppy bunny ears. Very floppy bunny ears.
I felt sorry for the guy because I figured he didn't have a girlfriend, wife or even mother to buy stockings for him. Embarrassed in the shop, I was guessing, where he'd gone to buy his disguise, he'd grabbed the first packet he'd seen. And come up short in the leg length.
He pointed his carrot at the bank teller afresh and repeated his muffled request. The bank teller was alarmed but also baffled.
"I beg your pardon, sir?" she said, her voice tight.
He didn't have a particularly big head but socks are pretty small. It continued to roll up his top lip. For a moment his nose acted as a kind of peg but once the sock had curled back over the tip - at which point his spectacles shot off his face and described a parabolic descent onto the counter - there was no holding it back.The sock shot up the rest of his face and popped off the top of his head, almost immediately flopping back down on his grey, neatly cut hair.
The bank teller's eyes went to it. The bank robber - a pleasant looking man in his early forties - crossed his eyes trying to look up to see the fate of his disguise. Then he looked down at the carrot with slow concentration. Pointed it afresh.
"He's going to fire!" I yelled, my voice echoing in the lofty hall. The bank-teller instinctively hunched her shoulders.
I flushed as I realised what I'd said. The thought of him firing the carrot was clearly nonsensical - for all I knew it wasn't even loaded.
Blame it on the jet-lag. I'd been feeling woozy and light-headed all morning.
The robber shook his head slowly and raised his eyes from the carrot to the teller, then glanced at me.
"This frigging city," he said, putting the carrot back into his pocket. "Drives you crazy."
The teller smiled sympathetically, relaxing a little.
"Surely," she said. But then she was aware, as I was, that the two armed bank guards in brown uniforms and peeked caps, alerted by my cry, were closing fast on either flank of the robber, dragging their guns from their holsters as they came.
They were within five yards of him when, having put the carrot in his right pocket, he drew something from his left.
"I meant to threaten you with a pineapple," he said, smiling suddenly. He had movie star teeth, impossibly white, impossibly even.
I couldn't see how moving into fruit was going to help him until he raised his hand over his head. The guards stopped where they were, the bank-teller flinched. I swivelled my eyes looking for something to hide behind - or under, I wasn't fussy.
This man was clearly an aficianado of period crime fiction too. (I can spell it if you can say it.) Those in which pineapple was slang for a hand grenade.
"Now, how's that gonna help you, fella?" the nearest guard, a lithe black guy with long sideburns said: "You drop that, you go too."
"You know," the robber said, thrusting his head forward to peer at the black guard. "I really don't give a damn."
He turned his head and squinted my way.
"Can't see a damned thing without my oculars," he said, almost to himself. Then to me: "You, sir, I deduce, are not from round here."
"Your deduction is correct,' I replied evenly. "What gives with the carrot?"
"An Englishman in New York. How quaint. The carrot? For when I get the munchies. Don't take another step."
The last remark was addressed to the black guard who had edged closer, his eyes fixed on the man's raised arm. The robber looked at him but spoke to the teller."How's my money, honey? That order was to go."
The teller looked from one to the other of the guards then opened her drawer and started to pile money from it on top of the counter.
"Nothing below a fifty, thanks all the same."
The second guard, a sleepy-eyed youngster with a beer belly, spoke with a Slim Pickens twang in his voice. "I'm awondering if you've actually took the pin out of that there thang."
"Another out-of-towner!" the robber said, his grin widening. "You're awondering indeed. Is that accent for real? Where might you be from, pray tell."
"Durango, Texas, sir," the second guard replied, casually taking a step towards the robber. "But you didn't answer my question."
"I don't believe it was a question,' the robber replied. "And I don't believe I gave you permission to step toward me so - please - step back again, immediately. As in NOW!"
His bellow made us all jump. The teller jerked and knocked a bundle of notes in an elastic band scudding off the counter to the floor. Schoolday football training came instinctively to the fore as I trapped the bundle with my right foot. The guard stepped back, watching the robber warily.
I glanced down, moved my foot slightly. The top note of the bundle was a $100 bill. If the rest were the same there was probably $20,000 lying at my feet.
The robber's genial manner had returned. He addressed the Texan.
"You were musing, as I recall, on the whereabouts of the pin. That's to say - in or out?"
"So which is it?" the black guard said.
"Clearly neither of you are familiar with the modern hand grenade. Pins are passť." He glanced up at the grenade. "These work on a pressure principle - far more effective. As in, I ease the pressure, we all go bye-bye."
He stepped forward quickly to the counter, the grenade still held high. "The money, honey.""It's here," the cashier said, indicating the piles of money on the counter in front of her. "What are you going to carry it in?"
The guy was expressionless for a moment then he slow-motioned his free hand up to smack his forehead with the open palm.
"See why I gotta get out of this friggin' city?" he said to me. "I'm an impulsive guy - always have been - and that's good as long as you think it through. Used to be I did. But now I decide to rob a bank - I'm just walking by, I haven't cased it or anything. I should have given up when I went next door by mistake but no." He shook his head wearily. "I didn't think it through. Oh man." He raised his voice again. "Does anyone have a bag I can borrow?"
"Nick fucking Madrid, how fucking long are you fucking-well going to keep me fucking waiting!"
The bellow - city walls toppled, aeroplanes collided in mid-air, oceans boiled, tectonic fault lines shuddered and shifted - came from the entrance to the bank. Everyone jerked round to see Bridget Frost, aka the Bitch of the Broadsheets, my best friend, constant goad and, possibly, love of my life, clack across the marble floor in long boots with such high heels she needed to do a hip rotation Monroe could only dream about.
Given she was wearing a fur coat open to reveal a short polka dot dress with buttons down the front that went in and out in all the right places, the Monroe analogy wasn't that far fetched. The Texan lipped his licks. I'll rephrase that: licked his lips. Sorry. I was distracted too - she was quite a sight.
The robber watched her approach. She had a couple of big carrier bags in each hand.
"Don't come any nearer!" the robber warned. Bridget kept on coming. He sighed. "Okay, do exactly as you please." He looked at the carrier bags. "You are the answer to my prayers, miss," he said as Bridget reached us.
"You all say that before," she replied. "After's another story." She looked up at the hand grenade, then, singularly unfazed, at me. "So have you finished or what?"
"Bridget," I said, my eyes flicking up to the grenade. "We have a situation here. This gentleman is in the middle of an armed robbery."
"Armed with what?" Bridget said scornfully. "That?"
A thin trickle of sweat rolled out from the robber's sideburn and down his cheek.
"You don't seem unduly impressed," he said testily, lowering his arm a little.
"Yeah, you all say that after, too." She moved a step closer to him. "I've got to admire your chutzpah." She reached up on tiptoe for the grenade.
"Bridget!" I called in alarm.
The guards froze, open-mouthed, albeit as much for the amount of thigh Bridget was now showing as for the danger she appeared to be in. Bridget's hand closed round the man's fist. The two guards and the bank-teller dived for cover. I lunged towards Bridget. The grenade squeaked loudly.
The robber flashed his movie star grin at Bridget and abruptly broke free of her. "Sure was nice to meet you," he said, heading for the door.
One of the guards started to draw his gun.
"Halt or I -" the guard ducked down again as the bank robber lobbed the hand grenade in his direction. It bounced twice, hit the wall behind the guard, dropped onto his back, rolled off it and lay on the marble floor. As the robber went through the door, Bridget went over and stepped on the grenade. It squeaked again.
"A dollar ninety five at Maceys in the kids section. I saw them this morning." She looked at me, huddled in the foetal position in front of the counter. "D'you think you can get a move on? I'm late for lunch."
Now read on

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